Sunday, May 1, 2016

Happy Nutty May Day

Nuts in May, you're thinking? Were they daft? Many folklorists have come up with explanations for the rhyme, from suggesting that it meant the "knots" of flowers on the hawthorn tree to the gathering of pignuts (a type of wild tuber dug out of the ground in early May in England), to referring to knots of flowers, not nuts. 

Which is true? I can't say. Perhaps it was just meant as a silly jingle--the song goes on as a choosing game, similar to Red Rover or PawPaw Bush or other childhood games:

Who will you have for nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Who will you have for nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.
We'll have [name] for nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
We'll have [name] for nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.
Who will you have to fetch him/her away,
Fetch him/her away, fetch him/her away,
Who will you have to fetch him/her away,
On a cold and frosty morning.
We'll have [name] to fetch him/her away,
Fetch him/her away, fetch him/her away,
We'll have [name] to fetch him/her away,
On a cold and frosty morning.

It was not a cold and frosty May morning at my house this year; it was a damp and rainy one, with clouds, fog, and ground so saturated that to step off the sidewalk meant getting your feet very, very wet. I went out to wash my face anyway, doing it with rainwater once again instead of dew since there was none of the latter to be had. Ah me.

There are many traditions associated with this day around the world, some of the pleasant, some of them, well, not so much. In a post from May of 2012, I wrote about some of these traditions, along with my own memories of May. 

May 1 is one of the "cross-quarter days," coming roughly midway between an equinox and a solstice. Other cross-quarter days are Groundhog day, August 1 (called Lammas--one day I need to look into the folklore of this date too), and October 31, Halloween. Perhaps their position in the solar calendar is one reason for celebrations occurring on these dates? 

In Ireland, this is Beltaine (or Bealtaine), celebrated with bonfires and other customs dating back to very ancient times. The website Irish Archeology has more fascinating information about this date.

Here are some recent tidbits I've gathered about this day, once considered to be the first day of summer (and I think that was actually more accurate than our current date of June 21).

Taken on May 1 at the John C Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC when we visited there in 2014.
You can read about it here
The British Isles, of course, are well known for their May Day celebrations, with Maypoles and processions. It was also a custom to leave a little bouquet of flowers on neighbors' doorsteps for luck, and to drive cattle through a fire to prevent such evil as milk thievery (people believed that milk could be stolen from the cattle through various evil means).  More about British customs, along with a few others,  from the BBC, can be found here.

In Greece, it was a day for celebrating, singing and feasting at the expense of the gentry. This is a clip from Folklore, Volume 1, by Joseph Jacobs, : 

The adults took part too, it seems, with their own song:

In Europe, Wikipedia gives this fascinating look at Walpurgis Night: 

"Burning of witches: also known as Walpurgis Night,[4] according to the traditional Czech stories, the night on the turn of April 30 and May 1 had a magical power. Not only was evil believed to be more powerful at this time, but also those who felt brave enough to go outside could find treasures if they carried with them items such as wood fern flower, wafer or sanctified chalk. It was also believed that during the night witches were flying and gathering for the Sabbath. To protect themselves, villagers burnt bonfires on hills and set fire to brooms, which were then thrown into the air to reveal any flying witch. These celebrations are nowadays accompanied with music and traditional food and mark the opening of the tourist season."

In Finland, April 30th is also Walpurgis Night, or Vappu, a celebration that spills over into May 1. Wikipedia describes it this way:

"In Finland, Walpurgis day (Vappu) is one of the four biggest holidays along with Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus). Walpurgis witnesses the biggest carnival-style festival held in the streets of Finland's towns and cities. The celebration, which begins on the evening of 30 April and continues to 1 May, typically centres on copious consumption of simasparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. Student traditions, particularly those of the engineering students, are one of the main characteristics of Vappu. Since the end of the 19th century, this traditional upper-class feast has been appropriated by university students. Many lukio (university-preparatory high school) alumni (who are thus traditionally assumed to be university bound), wear a cap. One tradition is to drink sima, a home-made low-alcohol mead, along with freshly cooked funnel cakes."

Walpurgis Night has a more sinister meaning in Germany, however, for it is the night many believed that witches met with the devil to await the arrival of summer. Creepy. bonfires were often lit, probably to keep those witches at bay!

France has a more pleasant tradition on this date. Because a king was once given a bunch of lilies on May 1, it is the custom to present loved ones with small bouquets of lilies on May 1. What better way to fill your house with sweetness than bringing in a bunch of these fragrant little flowers? I think I'll do just that, as mine are coming in to bloom right now.

This post could go on and on, as there are many celebrations worldwide to celebrate the coming of May. If you know of one that I haven't mentioned, please share it in the comments. I'd love to read it.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Feathered Visitors on a Rainy Day

Yesterday was one of those spring days I dislike. It started well enough but then turned hot, humid and sticky, with occasional breaks when it stormed or showered. The ground is now beyond saturated; even here on the hill we have standing pools in the grass.

But the birdfeeder action has been a real pleasure. This fellow came by for a visit, and he's still here today. I'm beyond happy because we rarely have seen a rose-breasted grosbeak here. It may be because the feeders were a good ways from the house and we mistook these birds for some other species. Now that we've moved the feeders closer we're able to see who's visiting a lot more clearly.

The grosbeak and the red-bellied woodpecker got along quite well, apparently deciding that there was plenty for both.

He's a handsome fellow, isn't he, with that rosy-red breast?

Munching down!

The grosbeak showing me his better side??

The little pine siskins are still with us and I have really enjoyed their twittering in the trees around the house. These little guys are very vocal, and quite comfortable with us nearby.

 You can barely see the touch of yellow on this bird--that is what made me think at first that these were goldfinches who were just getting their summer color.

A better look at the pine siskin, and you can see the yellow here too.

I am hoping we see more of the migratory birds in the coming weeks. The hummingbirds have returned, just two so far, but perhaps more are on the way. 

There's something that makes me happy when I see the various birds coming to the feeders. Maybe it's knowing that their arrival marks the true return of warmer weather. Or maybe it's just seeing them flitting about and knowing that they're eating insects. Or maybe it's just the colors of them, and they're beautiful songs. The truth is, it's all of those things.

Happy bird-watching, my friends!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Stories in the Round: A Recap

I was on the road earlier this week for a storytelling performance in Hagerstown, Maryland for Stories in the Round, a series coordinated by Fanny Crawford and hosted at the Universal Unitarian Church. It was a fine time--good audience, beautiful venue, and the stories and ballads flowed well. The event is held on the third Monday evening of each month, and I was so pleased to be the kickoff presenter for the third year of the series.

Fanny's husband took photos during the evening. It is so nice to get good pictures to share, from someone who knows how to take them. Thanks so much to Jose for these!

If you're curious about how such a storytelling program might go, here's a rundown on what I presented:

I started with one of my favorite of the Child ballads, a humorous one called Devil and the Farmer's Wife. This video was made a few years back when  sang it for a project on West Virginia storytellers.


Following the ballad, I went into a tall tale, which is really a combination of two traditional tall tales and a joke, woven together into one tale the begins honestly enough with when I moved to West Virginia. One of the stories I made my own in this is The Split Dog. Many storytellers tell their own version of this old saw; I bring along a skinning board (in the photo below) because some people are not familiar with them, and also a bottle of turpentine, just for fun.

I followed the tall tale with the Appalachian ballad Pretty Saro, and then went into a brief version of a new story that has captured my mind recently, that of my grandfather Hagger, my mother's father. He was a man I never met, as he was killed by a car in 1930 when my mother was just a child, but recently my cousins in England, especially my cousin Julie and my cousin Bob, have shared information and stories about him that have fascinated me.

From that story I moved on to the story of my parents' meeting during World War II, sharing some of the letters and other documents we found after they passed away. So this is family history, made into stories that everyone can relate to. That's important; my stories might fascinate me, but how can I make them interesting to strangers? What common chord can I strike so that others will feel what I do, and know these people and events as I do?

Another ballad, Jean Ritchie's West Virginia Mine Disaster, was next on my program, and afterward I discussed the display of mining paraphernalia I had brought with me.

Hat's lamps, the canary cage,  self-rescuers and a methane detector, along with other items. Here, I am talking about a turtleshell hardhat, used in the 1930's and made from tough leather.

In this photo, I am holding a display of scrip, the currency minted by individual coal companies and used to either pay miners in full or to be used as credit at the company store.

I ended the evening with one of my signature stories, The Headless Woman of Brier Creek, and then on request, added another Appalachian ballad, Railroad Boy, which has its roots in England as the song Butcher Boy.

Afterwards, Fanny gathered the storytellers who had come to listen for a group photo. It's a compliment when other tellers come to listen. They're a good audience!

So that's a short recap of the evening. I am still smiling as I remember all the faces, the smiles and nods, as the stories and songs rolled out.

And I am ever so grateful to this lady, Fanny Crawford, for inviting me, and to her husband Jose (whose last name I am embarrassed to admit I cannot recall) for taking such great photos.

If you live near Hagerstown, mark the third Monday in May on your calendar and plan to attend the next Stories in the round. You will be very glad you did.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.
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